We Shouldn't Have to Make that Choice

You don't know whether anyone needs your used video device. You've already gotten a new one, so you just want to donate or recycle the thing. You don't want it to wind up burned for copper, polluting a foreign land. But it would be awesome if someone less fortunate was able to fix it up, appreciate it, and improve their lives.
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Portions of this post in red were edited in response to complaints on this post from BAN.org Some changes I would not make, others I accept their clarification and am making my best effort to clear up misunderstandings.

Millions of Americans are looking for guidance to make this choice in a green way.

I looked through the BAN.org list of "E-Stewards" Founders today. Compared to the "Pledge" list, it looks impressive. There were some companies on the old "Pledge" list which were exporting a LOT, one even had "EPA Certified and BAN Certified" on their web page (I called Sarah and she got them to remove the phony claims, but the company remained on the "Pledge"). I'm optimistic that the new E-Stewards "certification" program (real certification this time) has dissuaded the companies least likely to pass actual verification, who got credit for making an "pledge" or "promise". BAN.org has stepped up its game with a "put your money where your mouth is" approach. Kudos.

So I don't see any bad companies. Actually, reviewing the E-Stewards Founders, these are great companies. But there's one problem. These companies are not exporting enough material to feed the demand of the legitimate refurbishing market:

Fair Trade exporters are missing from the list. We want good people to export to the repair market, so the repair market doesn't have to buy from bad people. If the export for repair market is active, we want the buyers to practice "safe imports", not take a pledge of abstinence.

I know ten of these 14 E-Stewards Founders pretty well. For the most part, the ones who have taken the pledge of export-for-repair abstinence are in a niche where they aren't sacrificing that much. One is a smelter which refines separated computer boards. Some of the companies take out off-lease computer equipment from a working environment (from banks etc.), and get a lot of equipment in working condition, and don't handle the residential PCs and TVs. I see two which are probably so traumatized by their proximity to the metro-NYC-export-everything market that they have adapted the most stringent system (tested working) just to differentiate themselves. I see California and Washington companies who are basically paid so much to shred the stuff that there is no incentive to separate out reuse and repair. In general, these are either "replacement from working environment" or "end of life" operations, and none of them repairs what Egypt, Mexico, or Senegal repairs. If your PC was not at the end of its life when it went in, it is now.

Some of the E-Steward companies are also WR3A companies, and in the past I have purchased material to export for repair from some of them. I don't think any are doing that now. It would be great to give them money for repairable equipment. I don't think there is a bad actor in the lot.

Here is the problem, if you take all their tonnage, the percentage of the computers that ultimately get refurbished is going to be low.

If a black working Dell monitor comes from a homeowner to one of these companies, what are the chances it will get to the hospital in Cairo?

BAN's response to me personally by email to this question has been that the export of the good unit provides an alibi for bad exporters (a "loophole"). That's a bit like saying drivers licenses are an alibi for drunk driving. Though Annex IX of the Basel Convention explicitly allows it, BAN has interpreted any removal of any part to be "waste generation", and therefore they argue that "export for repair and refurbishment" (the actual language of the actual Basel Convention) actually means "tested working" (a term found nowhere in the Basel Convention).

"We replaced the faulty capacitor and have the computer working in the hospital lab."
"Faulty capacitor!? Sounds like trans-boundary shipment of waste! Stop that man!"

BAN clarified that technically, they do allow export for repair, but only if the repair is diagnosed in advance and any part (such as the capacitor) to be replaced has been removed and recycled in the USA. I doubt anyone today is hiring a repair tech to remove the bad parts before exporting an item for repair, and if no one is actually doing it, it's academic. Moreover, several BAN companies have stated to me that they believe BAN's standard to be Tested Working. There are alternative standards. EPA's R2 allows "key functions" to be present, but E-Steward certification requires the units be repaired or the parts removed in the USA. ISRI has added good language to their draft policy to ban export of "obsolete" products (working but destined for scrap).

As a compromise, WR3A located a computer monitor factory in Malaysia and organized a very large purchase order, so they could refurbish the monitors - actually make them better than "tested working". We sold thousands of USA monitors refurbished at the Asia factory to Egyptian medical students this year, for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Asia factory agreed to be audited and certified, and created a CRT glass operation for "incidental breakage" which turned into Malaysia-to-Malaysia CRT recycling. But if one of the E-Stewards participates in this trade, they risk being excommunicated by BAN, because you don't know until it arrives at the factory which parts will or won't be replaced.

If the E-Steward companies start hiring monitor repair people, so I could get affordable ones to ship straight to Egypt, I could come aboard. One BAN representative suggested to me personally that letting the repair happen in the factory which made the monitor originally is exporting USA repair jobs. C'mon. Where are those USA repair jobs? Good Point Recycling hires more people by screening material for repair than we could if everything was demanufactured in the USA.

The E-Stewards program appears to embrace a "tested working" or "fully functional" export standard, or a standard of repair that requires upgradeable parts to be replaced prior to export. But the approved companies cannot afford to hire USA technicians to repair the electronics. That leaves one outcome. They are shredding up the monitors and computers, charging more for recycling services, and losing customers in the USA who cannot afford the cost of shredding up good gear. They shouldn't have to make that choice.

3B3K There are approximately 3 billion people who earn approximately 3 thousand dollars per year. They represent the "Good Enough Market". They buy fixed stuff, white box refurbs, knock-off brands. "Good Enough" computers to get online, "Good Enough" TVs to watch the soccer game on, "Good Enough" a cell phone to call work. They are learning about Iranian elections via used 15" computer monitors, they are listening to Pandora radio, they are looking up schematics on how to repair the newest used cell phone.

How does Hamdy in Cairo, who sells to medical students in the 3B3K countries of Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, etc. get computers to sell? "Leapfrog", Jim Puckett says... they should get newer computers than the western nations had. Stifle a tear! What a noble thought!

It's a false choice. Even a $50 computer is a lot of money for a medical student in Senegal, Egypt, or Peru. If the hospital in Cairo has to choose between computerizing the blood bank (the number one cause of death of women in Africa is blood loss during childbirth) and accepting a mix of junk computers from one of the companies which does not follow either R2 or E-Steward standards, what should they do? They shouldn't have to make that choice!

WR3A's solution is to get really good companies, like those above, to export for repair to really good companies overseas. Using fair trade contracts, WR3A gives overseas markets the right incentives to pick up their game. The same solution they propose in the USA - to audit and certify the recyclers - can be done in other countries. In fact, it was done already in the countries with the factories that manufactured the TVs (e.g. Mexico) and computers (e.g. China and Malaysia). If Malaysia seems too far away to monitor, it can be done in Mexico, an OECD country close enough to the USA for BAN to visit regularly.

By at worst slamming the export for repair door to the E-Stewards, and at best creating rules that computer monitor processors don't have the wherewithal to follow (voluntarily shredding the material instead), BAN takes value added electronics out of the system. They deny people like Hamdy and Jinex and Fang and Vicki the ability to create "good enough" jobs repairing "good enough" equipment, and deny the revenue from those sales to recyclers in the USA. They take eager, talented people in emerging countries right out of what Orit Gadiesh, Philip Leung, Till Vestring defined as "The Battle for China's Good Enough Market". It's like the war on drugs strategy, the Japan boycott, the coffee boycott, and other unenforceable mandates which drive people to back alleys. What the world really needs is MORE companies to export, to give the overseas buyers more choices. More trade leads to more competition, more buyer choice, which leads to better outcomes.

When asked about whether China's sweatshop recyclers would be even worse off without those recycling jobs, Jim Puckett told 60 Minutes, "They shouldn't have to make that choice". I agree. The solution is to give them more choices. What I would like to do is get the E-Steward companies to read the Basel Convention Annex IX, which allows export for reuse and repair, to visit WR3A repair shop friends in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Mid-East, and to engage with them in a fair trade manner. If they can meet the demand with better product than my company provides, viva la competition. Uncomfortable with the worker safety standard in Peru? Offer a discount on the items in exchange for beefing up the EHS. The USA companies will make more money, and the techies and recyclers overseas will steadily improve their lifestyles, emerging from poverty, and follow the most successful path to becoming an OECD nation.

And it's not just me. Read today's Huffington Post for the perspective from India. Fair Trade isn't easy, but it's the best solution.

We have seen bans before. Ban abortions, film back alleys. Ban ewaste exports, film back alleys.

Samsung continues to buy CRTs for recycling from Australia, Europe, Japan and Korea. They just closed the market to USA CRT glass. Here is BAN's explanation of their role shutting down that CRT glass-to-glass market. BAN denied playing a role, but their own letter above says otherwis. My sources in Malaysia say BAN broke the market, and BAN admits to corresponding with Malaysia DOE just prior to the closure, and offering Samsung one choice - to mothball a multimilliondollar CRT glass processing machine and buy pre-washed cullet from the USA, or to continue what they had already been doing for Australia, Japan, Korea, and Europe. BAN's involvement was very specifically about whether Samsung should recycle CRTs from the USA, and the phosphors (very old, 1960s era TVs had cadmium phosphors) from Australia are ok. What we know for sure is that the price of CRT s recycling had been dropping for Americans at a steady rate, but went back up a year ago due to this decision to make Samsung mine lead rather than recycle lead supplied by the USA.

BAN evidently, either purposefully or inadvertently, played a role shutting off access to the good factories like Samsung in Klang Malaysia which were buying used USA CRT glass to melt into new CRTs. Why? Because Samsung purchased glass cutting and washing equipment in Europe, as they wanted to do their own quality control before putting the glass cullet into their furnaces. Why own the equipment if BAN's letter says you cannot use it? Why use it for the stream of CRT glass from Europe and Australia, but not from the USA? Samsung and Malaysia DOE looked at each other, asked "are you thinking what I'm thinking?" and took the only logical path left by BAN's ultimatum. Stop manufacturer takeback of CRTs from the USA. Get what you need elsewhere.
They also said no to the monitor factory takeback program. When they shut down the good people, and the market continues, they can film more bad people junking the CRTs which became unaffordable to recycle, after they closed the good market to Americans.

It is so depressing for Americans to be offered the choice between giving their used electronics to a USA company that charges them less and exports the unrepairable junk, and a company which has no repair department and shreds the working equipment into little pieces of plastic, glass and metal. It is sad that these stellar e-waste companies are forced to deny the highest value-added technical repair jobs available to developing countries. It's frustrating for CRT glass end markets overseas to have to choose between buying CRT glass for recycling through a smuggler, or to buy mined lead silica from a superfund site.

"Your highness, the people are rioting because they have no bread."
"Then let them eat cake".
WE SHOULDN'T HAVE TO MAKE THAT CHOICE.


1 comment:

Our Chicken Rice Shop said...

Robin,

We are a company based in NorCal and have been selling used/offlease notebooks to Malaysia and Singapore. Of late, our clients are now asking if we can get our used computers to be certified fully functional by a relevant US authority - all due to this Basel Treaty.

We are not sure whom to turn to - or which US agency can do this certification... any thoughts?

Many thanks.